Wednesday, April 24, 2019 - Updated: 2:03 pm
QUESTION: As Easter approaches, I see lots of signs at Protestant churches inviting people to join them for an Easter sunrise service. I don’t see that at Catholic churches. We seem to encourage people to come to the Easter Vigil, saying that it is the liturgical highlight of the year. Why do Catholics celebrate Easter beginning at night and Protestants celebrate it beginning at sunrise?
ANSWER: The Easter Vigil is unlike any other Mass throughout the year. The liturgical texts speak of it as the “mother of all vigils.” It really is the highpoint of the liturgical year.
To address the question above it is important to understand the notion of “vigil.” It was not uncommon for the early Christians to keep “vigils,” spending most of the night in prayer awaiting even ordinary Sundays. When it came to Easter, their vigil was even more important.
It was their belief that all creation awaited redemption, so they looked forward to spending those hours awaiting the dawn of day and the dawn of the salvation won for us by Christ. The “vigil” celebration of Easter in the earliest Christian communities recalled a history that was unfolded through the Old Testament. These biblical texts spoke of the longing for salvation that could come only from God.
In the darkness, a fire was kindled so that candles could be lit to be held by the entire community. As Christ came to bring light to a darkened world, so too these lights expressed the presence of Christ, the light.
Water was then blessed to be used in the Easter sacrament of baptismal initiation. This water became the means through which people were washed clean of sin and entered communion with Christ. The water was a sign of the dying and rising that takes place in baptism. In this way, the earliest Christians visualized the person thrust beneath the water — a potential death — and then saw them rise out of the water to eternal life. The gift of oil was then employed to complete baptism and celebrate the confirmation of the Holy Spirit.
The new members of the community as well as the entire assembly then received the body and blood of the Lord as the first disciples did at the Last Supper. Today, we continue this special vigil of Easter in fidelity with the faith tradition of all those generations that have come before us.
In many of the earliest Christian communities, the only celebration of Easter was the vigil that ended as dawn approached. Today, the communities are much larger, but only one vigil is permitted. So, the additional Masses of Easter are celebrated early in the morning of Easter and throughout the day. In each of those Masses the baptismal element of the vigil is celebrated by the renewal of baptismal promises and the sprinkling of the congregation with water blessed at the Easter Vigil.
While some Protestant churches begin Easter as the sun rises, many other Christian churches continue the ancient practice of a vigil celebration as well. The symbols of Easter speak loudly no matter when it begins. The Easter Vigil is a precious treasure in our liturgical heritage and the keystone of our contemporary liturgical life as Catholics.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.